"The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, $22, paperback
Many biographers have tried to tackle Theodore Roosevelt. Aside from the morose Abraham Lincoln or the untested and precocious JFK, TR provides the best biographical fodder for a commander-in-chief. So it is curious that Doris Kearns Goodwin, perhaps the most widely recognizable and widely read United States historian -- and who has spoiled us with multiple prize-winning books -- has chosen Roosevelt for her most recent effort, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism."
Then again, only Lincoln -- the subject of Goodwin's last book, "Team of Rivals," -- probably has had more biographers than TR, so Goodwin's career has been built from reshaping the most popular subjects (yes, she also has written a book on the Kennedys). "The Bully Pulpit" wisely breezes through Roosevelt's rise and focuses instead on the relationship between Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, his onetime heir apparent, as well as Roosevelt's symbiotic relationship with the journalist "muckrakers" -- S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White and Ray Stannard Baker -- in trust-busting and pushing the "progressive" agenda.
If you've read Edmund Morris' brilliant three-volume Roosevelt biography, Goodwin does not present any new revelations for a man she calls "pathologically reticent" about his personal life. The Taft sections, at least to this ignorant reader, instead emerge as the most consistently revealing. What Taft lacked in dynamism he made up for in empathy; he was not the tornadic extrovert that TR was, but he managed a genial disposition with the best intentions -- the classic mold of a politician, well-liked by everyone he met -- and struggled often with his weight.
Of course, as the adage goes, often those best intentions pave the way to perdition. The ire stoked when the Taft Administration strayed from TR's progressive agenda was excruciating for both. Although he was only a year older than Roosevelt, Taft's political gains were never as significant as his younger mentor; at least the sting of losing a presidential election -- both Taft and Roosevelt were defeated by Woodrow Wilson in 1912 -- was less biting. Post-presidency, Roosevelt went adventuring in Africa and South America; Taft's sad story at least ends well, as he achieved his ultimate triumph by becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
While the men get the glory of the title, the most interesting characters in "The Bully Pulpit" are almost always the women. Goodwin's talents are best displayed in the heroism and tragedy of the story's leading ladies. Heartbreaking is the debilitating aphasia-inducing stroke suffered by Nellie Taft, not long after realizing her dream of becoming first lady. In the most moving scene of the book, then-President Taft spends much time repeatedly helping his wife --a whip-smart social climber, book smart with flawless social graces -- recover her speech, saying, "Now please, darling, try and say 'the.'" Goodwin also paints fascinating portraits of Ida Tarbell, perhaps the most talented of the muckrakers, and of Edith Carow, Roosevelt's second wife, a brilliant woman who perhaps shortchanged herself because she believed "a woman's name should appear in print but twice -- when she is married and when she is buried."
Goodwin is not capable of writing an obtuse sentence (or, sometimes, appropriating a bad sentence, as she has faced some latent plagiarism allegations), but the prose here sometimes possesses the faults the candidate Taft struggled with: she drones on a bit too long and bit too dryly. She also whitewashes S.S. McClure's life and motives, when the truth was the journalism titan was the kind of unethical baron the scribes of McClure's were exposing.
While this book won't carry the same cultural weight as "Team of Rivals" -- when Goodwin's history seemed to be influencing presidents -- it is as elegant as the rest of Goodwin's oeuvre. Perhaps, by now, we are just spoiled.